The history of the Sheriff’s office in Calcutta is closely interlinked with the
origin, growth and decay of Sheriffdom in England. The high Sheriff of a modern English county descends in unbroken continuity from, at the latest,the 10th century. For over a thousand years the office has undergone multifarious changes, which reflect the entire growth of English local administration. Kingship is probably an older institution known to English-speaking people than Shrievalty.
The word “scir-gerefe” (old English) or “shire-reeve” from which is derived
that of sheriff, occurs first in a document which belongs to the early years of
the 11th century. Before the appearance of the sheriff, an alderman, whose
rank was equal to that of bishop, headed the shires. Aldermen sat among the
“witan” of the kingdom and performed duties as officials of the judiciary. The
alderman’s headship of the shire is demonstrated later by the story told in the
Chronicle of Civil Commotion in the middle of the eighth century and of the
Mercian and Danish wars of the ninth. Here the shires of the West Saxon
kingdom bear the name which they still retain and in times of war the men of
which fought under the leadership of aldermen.
The precursor of the sheriff is to be sought not among the early heads
of shires but among the king’s reeves, a class of officials whose administrative
rank is inferior to that of an alderman. It may be concluded from records and
documents that the office of the sheriff originated in the half century between
the enactment of the laws of Edward the Elder and the death of Edgar. This
is the period when in south of England administration in burghal areas gave
way in legal enactment to that by shires and hundreds. The sheriff acquired
the functions of the reeve of the burghal district and, to lighten the burden,
somehow shifted part of it to the hundred. In later times the sheriff came to exercise control over the hundred.
The king communicated his orders through the shire-reeve, or the sheriff,
to the court of shire. In course of time the shire-reeve developed an official
connection with the court and slowly had influence over its business. After
the Norman conquest he became its president. Before the conquest the sheriff
was overshadowed by the earl within whose province his shire lay. But he
was responsible to the king for the conduct of his office, and played an important part in the maintenance of authority during the last few years of the old English state.